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Once they were lawyers… Marcel Proust

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The great French writer had a law degree — and that’s not all

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Many lawyers go on to do other things with their lives — so many that it’s almost as if there might be life after the law. Legal Cheek will celebrate these brave souls in an occasional series.

And for starters, who better than Marcel Proust? The Frenchman’s famous In Search of Lost Time has stymied many a would-be reader (mainly by dint of its length), but those who’ve got to the end won’t hear a word against the early 20th century writer.

“The greatest novel ever written,” “unsurpassable”, “magnificent” and “very long” are just some of the descriptions for Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece, published between 1913 and 1927.

All are true. I read the book while I was doing the Common Professional Examination, finishing it just before the Law Society Finals. That reference to the unlamented LSF shows my age, but though time has withered my brain and body, my recall of what Proustians tend to call ‘The Search’ is undimmed. It’s a life-changing, stupendously good book, out on its own for its sensitivity, compassion, breadth of knowledge and sheer humanity.

Little did I know, when I read The Search all those years ago, that Marcel had obtained a law degree. I’ve just discovered this thanks to Benjamin Taylor’s excellent biography, called, appropriately enough, The Search. Moreover, Taylor reveals that contrary to my view of Proust being a man of letters who did nothing, really, but write (thanks largely to parental indulgence and inheritance), he even had a job.

For two weeks.

Yes, having bagged his law degree, Marcel Proust worked for an attorney known as Gustave Bonnet for a fortnight. And that was that. “It was to be the whole of his law career”, writes Taylor.

Did his law degree and brief stint in an office inform Proust’s writing? Perhaps not, but there’s only one way to find out — go and read In Search of Lost Time. And if you’re asked why on earth you’re occupying yourself with a French novel of more than 3,500 pages, rather than researching law books and writing essays, remember, as Taylor also reveals, that literature is the one vocation from which you cannot be sacked. Unlike the law — but that’s another story…